Air shows are an amazing way to see aeronautical talent of pilots maneuvering the greatest historical aircraft and the newest technology. Sometimes, though, these days of family fun have turned into horrible tragedy when accidents occur. Here are the worst of those air show incidents.
The worst airshow accident in history occurred on July 27, 2002, near Lviv, Ukraine. More than 10,000 spectators were gathered at Sknyliv Airfield to watch the aeronautics commemmorating the 60th anniversary of the Ukrainian Air Force's 14th Air Corps. A Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi Su-27, a twin-engine Russian-built jet fighter, was performing an aerobatics roll when the pilots lost control and the pilots ejected as the plane shot downward. The plane initially hit the ground in an area free of spectators, but burst into flames as it cartwheeled into the crowd. Seventy-seven people were killed, including 28 children, and 543 people were injured. Ten of the injured were permanently disabled. The pilots, who survived with minor injuries, were sentenced to prison terms on charges of negligence and failing to follow orders. The airfield is now Lviv International Airport, which now welcomes nearly half a million passengers each year.
On Aug. 28, 1988, about 300,000 spectators were gathered at Ramstein near Kaiserslautern, West Germany, for the Flugtag '88 airshow. An Italian Air Force team was attempting to make a heart formation when the plane that represented the "arrow" piercing the heart struck aircraft within that group. The Aermacchi MB-339, a light attack aircraft, hit the ground and exploded, tumbling into the crowd. Of the two Aermacchis struck in mid-air, one exploded upon impact and the pilot of the other was able to eject, but hit the ground before his parachute opened. That aircraft struck a standing Black Hawk helicopter, killing the American pilot. The seven other airplanes in the maneuver landed safely at nearby Sembach airbase. In addition to the three pilots, 67 spectators died and 346 were seriously injured. The emergency response was hampered by the lack of coordination between German crews and American military personnel on the U.S. air base. Most of the deaths were due to flying shrapnel and burns.
On Sept. 24, 1972, crowds were gathered for the 2-day Golden West Sport Aviation Show at the Sacramento Executive Airport in California's capital. At a nearby shopping center, a Little League football team was celebrating in a Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor. An F-86 Sabre fighter, manufactured in 1954 for the Royal Canadian Air Force, overshot the end of the runway on takeoff on a manuever where the pilot dipped down toward the ground. It went over a levee, across a street and through a car, killing the couple inside, and struck the ice cream parlor, where it exploded. The pilot survived with a broken arm, but 22 people were killed, including a dozen children, an entire family of four, and nine family members of one 8-year-old survivor. Twenty-eight were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined that the pilot, lacking experience with the Sabrejet, tried to lift off too quickly and over-rotated. Ultimately, the land use around the airport was also redone in a comprehensive zoning plan.
On Sept. 15, 1951, more than 1,000 people were gathered in the town on the Eastern Plains of Colorado for an airshow sponsored by the Flagler Lions Club to mark Fall Festival Day. A single-engine plane flown by a pilot from Lowry Air Force Base hooked a wing during a maneuver and crashed into the crowd. The pilot was killed as well as 19 people on the ground, 13 of them children. Reports later indicated that the pilot had arrived late for that day's safety briefing and was flying 300 feet lower than the minimum 500 feet height.
The Reno Air Races had been no stranger to pilot fatalities before the Sept. 16, 2011, crash at Reno Stead Airport: from 1964 to 2010, 19 pilots have lost their lives in accidents during the races. In the airshow, one of the few venues that continues to host air racing, high-performance aircraft race around pylons on courses ranging from 3 to 8 miles. Pilot Jimmy Leeward, who had flown stunt planes in movies, was flying a modified World War II fighter, the P-51 Mustang, when the plane pitched upward and then took a nosedive. It struck the box seats in front of the main spectator grandstand, but did not explode. Parts of the aircraft fanned out and struck people in the crowd. Including the pilot, 10 were killed and about 70 of the injured were taken to hospitals.